Magnolia Pictures

Whither the Newsman?

A new documentary about 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace obscures more than it reveals

Magnolia Pictures
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Howard Beale: Why me?  

Arthur Jensen: Because you’re on television, dummy. 

—Network (1976)

The worst that came from the rise of TV news is also its most cited measure of success: the ability to generate freakish sums of money with undeniable efficiency. For an appendage of a medium that obliterated our sense of scale, this is a noteworthy feat. As an exemplar of an industry now in peril (so they say), this might be simply understood as the catalyst for broadcast journalism’s decay—or a mandate for its abandonment entirely.

By the time television’s mandarin news magazine, 60 Minutes, vaulted across the threshold of the 2000s, it had earned its parent company CBS approximately $2 billion and reigned as the most successful program ever by ratings alone. Success, that damp spawning ground, gave us a torrent of copycats and prospectors alike: Dateline, Nightline, 20/20, 48 Hours, Inside Edition, Geraldo. Later came noble investigative attempts like Frontline and NewsHour, and modernizations like Vice News Tonight or The Weekly, designed for new demos, young demos, with disposable incomes (allegedly) and a desire (so it’s thought) to be taken seriously.

Sometime before “fake news” but long after the American public’s honeymoon with broadcast journalism turned self-destructive and codependent, one man appeared to stand above the fray: Mike Wallace, the star reporter of 60 Minutes. In his time, he’d become a respectable figure: a solemn, vicious inquisitor who existed not on a mortal plane but in a “pantheon” with other great journalists, men like Murrow and Cronkite and Schorr. One of the “trenchcoat stars,” said The New Yorker. America’s “ombudsman,” as he preferred to call himself. A winner of two lifetime achievement awards and some twenty Emmys. “People will come out of the woodwork for 60 Minutes,” a correspondent for the program and on-and-off host explained in 1982, “partly out of their belief that if there’s something wrong in their life, Mike Wallace can fix it.” But what if the story of Wallace’s rise from a hawker of Parliament cigarettes in the 1950s to the most popular figure on the most watched public-affairs show in the history of television is less the story of one great man swaggering for the truth (and killer ratings), but instead a story of America’s falling out with great men and great truth?

“What’s that line from Chinatown?” Wallace once said, attempting to explain his stature to a prominent TV critic in the 1990s. “Something about politicians, whores, and buildings becoming respectable if they’re around long enough?” If there’s one thing that a new documentary on Wallace makes clear, it’s that he shared traits with all three categories but carried on so long, in our homes and in our national discourse, that he saw the end of the television’s respectability itself. Like divergent lines on a graph, Wallace’s star rose as viewership of “network TV magazines” evaporated, households heading for the partisan enclaves of cable news. Wallace, wrote Matt Zoller Seitz in 2012, is “an example of the notion that if you do something long enough and at a high enough level of visibility, you will eventually seem like a monument to Old Guard values.”

Sometime before “fake news” but long after the American public’s honeymoon with broadcast journalism turned self-destructive and codependent, one man appeared to stand above the fray: Mike Wallace.

At the expense of all other context, details, or nuance and structural, cultural, or profit analysis, Mike Wallace Is Here is a scrupulously credulous tribute to these so-called values. Values such as the importance of “tough questions,” or speaking truth to power in the interview format, or maintaining an aggressive reporting style and a hard-edged, tough-minded persona both on and off the camera, with the single goal of striking fear in the hearts of prevaricators and mendacious figures around the globe. Consulting the press notes confirms the documentary’s black and white intentions. “Pushback from the powerful against journalism,” Mike Wallace is Here director Avi Belkin explains, “is the story of the last thirty years of broadcast journalism, and now we can see where it’s becoming dangerous to our democracy. Journalism needs to have integrity. If people don’t believe in it, its power is diminished. Hopefully, by telling the origin story of broadcast journalism, we will remind people how we’re missing journalists who are willing to fight that by asking the right questions.”

It’s the stuff of liberal fantasia: that the ills of our media ecosystem lie not in corporate grifting, profit-chasing, or the whims of the ultra-rich who have increasingly come to dominate the industry, but a shortage of good men on the battleground of truth. Fittingly, the answers that Belkin elides have been captured by the film itself—though always beneath, around, and above the questions asked during interview segments. Having persuaded the brass at CBS, 60 Minutes’s parent company, to open up their corporate film archives, Belkin assembles this friendly bit of docu-marketing from fifty years of footage—Wallace’s earliest commercials, promos, his breakout run on Night Beat, the famous “Mike Wallace Interview,” 60 Minutes A-roll, B-roll, and ample raw footage, some of it, as a press release for the film breathlessly notes, even captured on 16 mm film.

With unrelenting literal mindedness, Mike Wallace Is Here delivers on its stark premise, preferring to keep the famous interviewer in the frame through which the world already knows him. (Its title is borrowed from an advertisement that hung in Wallace’s office, adapted from a now-famous quote of beer tycoon Joseph Coors: “The four most frightening words in the English language are ‘Mike Wallace is here.”) Soundstages, news studios, New York City sidewalks, presidential palaces, Bel-Air estates, the Middle East—each backdrop is secondary to Wallace’s face, centered in camera, his body tightly bound in a range of Botany 500 suits, hair slicked back. A model of poise. A mouthpiece for collective concerns, made concrete in living rooms across America. Content, in Belkin’s handling, with no context.

“You’re not gonna like this,” Bill O’Reilly says at the beginning of the documentary, “But I tell people, ‘If you don’t like me, go to Wallace.’” Wallace flinches as O’Reilly looks on at his erstwhile role model. To Wallace, the Fox News anchor is a mere “op-ed columnist,” a bellicose hack in Brooks Brothers. In Belkin’s hands, though, the scene is ambiguous: Is Wallace to blame for this monstrosity, or some other force? Throughout Mike Wallace is Here, he evades a direct answer in a fashion that would have sent Wallace himself into a rage. In many ways, Belkin is a fitting stand-in in for mainstream media values, for O’Reilly isn’t, to him, some right-wing ideologue or white supremacist, but a sensationalist with extreme tendencies, an apolitical figure who happens to play the game better than most.

Following this setup, Belkin’s film proceeds apace, mimicking the logic of network news in the very ideological belief that the truth isn’t dictated in a given moment by power or politics or context, but something absolute that can and will be revealed if only the right question is asked doggedly enough, aggressively enough, even combatively enough, as long as it’s in non-partisan diction. (Nevermind that the interviews themselves are often “pure shadow play,” choreographed down to the expected responses, as a former 60 Minutes producer explained in 1998.) If you want to be a great man of journalism, it helps to have no moral identity at all. “I carry little ideological baggage,” Wallace told Mother Jones in 1979. “I like to think of myself as drawing from both sides: Bill Buckley; Henry Kissinger; Abe Rosenthal, editor of the Times, except really he’s not all that liberal. I’m trying to think of a friend who’s a liberal . . . and I can’t come up with one right away.”

How are we supposed to interpret Wallace and his work within the narrow confines of this documentary? As Belkin cues “Tick Of The Clock” by Chromatics while running through scenes of Wallace huddled in front of Soviet tanks, standing in a generic American neighborhood, sitting cross-legged in front of the Ayatollah Khomeini, engaged in discourse with a newly famous Ayn Rand, inspiring Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman to sweat, it’s clear that we’re meant to see Wallace as the camera itself saw him: one of Don Hewitt’s “tigers.” A trench-coat star who “invented the genre” of the tough question. A man with mortal flaws, “a son of a bitch,” as Barbra Streisand said after a titanic sit-down with Wallace. But one made acceptable in light of his obvious onscreen talents. “Why are you sometimes such a prick?” asks Morley Safer, Wallace’s CBS co-anchor, in one scene, between bouts of laughter. Wallace never lacked for authenticity, the documentary makes abundantly clear. There’s a sense that this dearth of personality should suffice when it comes to our questions about broadcast journalism’s grand erosion. Great men once walked the earth. Now, we have Jake Tapper.

This paucity of imagination on Belkin’s part can’t be chalked up simply to a lack of curiosity, although it’s certainly abetted by it. He never seems to consider that the cause of our media decay exists outside of the footage on display. And yet for all his focus on the frame, Belkin also ignores the problems of the camera itself. In 1983 the media critic Vilém Flusser theorized that a camera doesn’t function in a vacuum. Instead, a hierarchy of functions determines the meaning of the images it produces, becomes the content. “The camera functions on behalf of the photographic industry, which functions on behalf of the industrial complex, which functions on behalf of the socio-economic apparatus, and so on,” Flusser writes. If you wished to proceed by this logic, you could decode every image as an expression of “the concealed interests of those in power.” Flusser’s thinking expands, in many ways, on Marshall McLuhan’s worn-out axiom: the medium is the message.

It’s the stuff of liberal fantasia: that the ills of our media ecosystem lie not in corporate grifting, profit-chasing, or the whims of the ultrarich who have increasingly come to dominate the industry, but a shortage of good men on the battleground of truth.

Perhaps this goes some way toward explaining every failed attempt by the media to ascertain the intentions of white supremacists, as Wallace is shown doing in the documentary, interviewing a Klansman on Night Beat. His robe and hood shine in the studio light, but I can’t recall the exchange; it was drowned out by the image. For both McLuhan and Flusser, the camera’s ability to amplify anything it took in had the power to fundamentally reorder the meaning of the world. The equal impact of everything that took place within the frame disturbed them more than the notion of reality TV or softball celebrity interview questions. Just four years prior to McLuhan’s famous media treatise, he expressed his dismay at the flattening of content and meaning into pure signal. “The world is now like a continually sounding tribal drum where everybody gets the message all of the time,” McLuhan said. “A princess gets married in England and boom, boom, boom go the drums. We all hear about it. An earthquake in North Africa, a Hollywood star gets drunk—away go the drums again.” There was such a rumbling in 1979, Belkin’s documentary shows us, when Wallace became the first network journalist to sit down with the Ayatollah Khomeini during the U.S. hostage crisis. He passed along criticism to the Iranian leader courtesy of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. “He called you,” Wallace starts in the footage, hands on chest, “Forgive me, Imam—his words, not mine—‘a lunatic.’” The Ayatollah calmly responds to Wallace, along with his estimated sixty-five million viewers, and urges Egyptian Muslims to overthrow Sadat. This they did, with a barrage of AK-47 fire at a military parade in Cairo, just two years later.

“There are five ways to titillate the public,” an already sagging Andy Rooney told a reporter in the early 1980s. “By talking about money or diet or sex or by drama or information.” Could Rooney have imagined the arousal awaiting the public when television would come to offer all of these sensations, simultaneously, in one braided stream of light? Or could Don Hewitt, the rogue creator of 60 Minutes, have anticipated that a show based on the simple premise of “putting exciting people on camera” would one day be seen as a bulwark between the public good and the political hysteria that is “fake news”? In a medium where the only real value is entertainment value, we should be disappointed they didn’t warn us earlier about this second act.

What if the news was always a compromised good? As the fourth largest media corporation in the world, CBS itself is an apparatus with motivations to pursue profit, gin up news-based melodramas in search of ways to “titillate” the public. The news that Wallace offered for so long was really an aggregate of compromises, the marketing and myth departments working overtime to balance things out. But it’s hard to put this kind of suggestion in a documentary about a news program owned by a company that’s graciously acting as the primary source of said documentary’s material. Perhaps this explains why Belkin fails to address one of the most glaring compromises that unfolded at CBS during Wallace’s reign: the rot of sexual harassment.

Whispers of Wallace’s own louche ways first became public in the 1990s, in his own words. “What would now be called sexual harassment was par for the course back in the 1950s and early 1960s,” he bragged in a 1996 Playboy interview. “And I would indulge in it.” Indulgences for Wallace included the occasional “snapping of a bra” around the office, or as a Rolling Stone reporter recalled in the early 1990s, Wallace’s habit of swatting female producers in the hallways with such frequency that one woman started “[putting] her hands behind her” at the sight of Wallace holding a rolled-up paper, “like a little kid would to ward off a spanking.” The toxic environment radiated outward and upward, from the show’s part-time correspondent Charlie Rose, whose well-documented penchant for harassment resulted in a recent settlement by the network with three of his accusers, to Don Hewitt himself, who allegedly sexually assaulted a former employee and destroyed her career. CBS agreed to pay a total of $5 million in settlement payments to the woman, with a guarantee of $75,000 per year for the rest of her life.

Would a tough question, posed by an unflinching reporter, have been of use behind the scenes at CBS?

After Hewitt’s death in 2009, his replacement Jeff Fager was fired for “certain acts of sexual misconduct,” or, as the lawyers wouldn’t say, groping, attempted forced kissing, and sexual discrimination, which led to a $950,000 settlement with his accuser. Fager also turned a blind eye to the toxic behavior of his personal friend, producer Ira Rosen, who would ask his female coworkers to “twirl” for him in the office, and flirt with sources in a sexually suggestive manner. Other producers in the boy’s club allegedly preferred to “yell, scream, and throw objects at the staff.” “We note that the misconduct of individual 60 Minutes employees, including Mr. Fager and Mr. Rosen, should not have been tolerated,” read the findings by an outside firm tasked with investigating these allegations. “But we find that it was not as severe as the media accounts or as severe as the sexual misconduct that occurred during the Don Hewitt era at 60 Minutes.” Severe sexual misconduct, it should be said, was the indisputable trait of another man at CBS, its former chief executive, Les Moonves—accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment and discrimination. In 2018, the year Moonves was fired from his post, 60 Minutes was, by every traditional metric and purported value of the old guard, a success, generating up to $100 million a year in revenue.

Would a tough question, posed by an unflinching reporter, have been of use behind the scenes at CBS? Never mind that so much of the reporting that aired the sordid showbiz practices of Moonves, Fager, Hewitt—or any #MeToo exposé for that matter—was made possible by women who endured the abuse. For many in the audience, simply sharing a story wasn’t enough, not great entertainment, not made for TV. Unlike the “get,” the exclusive interview, the “make ‘em squeal” tactic, the cross-legged correspondent shooting news reports with $250,000 budgets, these spontaneous occasions of truth, working not abstractly but in pursuit of a social good, contradict everything we’re told in Belkin’s documentary about the journalistic tools of great men. Those tools, upon closer look, are mere objects of Nielsen-approved obfuscation. Malicious appendages of spin designed for the most profitable device of marketing in modern existence.

There was one man who tried to ask the tough questions at CBS, in an attempt to work by the values that are lauded in but absent from Belkin’s documentary. Assigned to research and write the 60 Minutes fiftieth anniversary book, biographer Richard Zoglin was pushed out of the project by Fager for asking too many questions about the rumors of a sexually toxic atmosphere at 60 Minutes. When it came to fill in the entry for Wallace, Fager did it himself, writing a familiar summary full of talking points with no discernible origin, handed down across time or plucked from the airwaves. Wallace, he wrote, was “tough, edgy, fun, bighearted, occasionally mean, full of life, and difficult to work with.” A “troublemaker” Fager added, but “he loved that role, on and off air.”

Nathan Taylor Pemberton is a writer and editor from Florida, who currently lives in Brooklyn. He’s on Twitter @nathanpemberton.
 

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